Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (1997)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: Featurette, Theatrical Trailer

After a long wait, Hayao Miyazaki’s monumental 1997 animation feature film "Princess Mononoke" is finally making its DVD debut through Buena Vista Home Entertainment. Announced at an earlier point already, Buena Vista Home Entertainment actually pulled the title from its release schedules in order to add the original Japanese audio track to the disc, and finally we have the chance to behold the final result. A DVD highlight that you will most likely not forget too quickly.

For those of you unfamiliar with "Princess Mononoke" let me first point out that the film may not be what you’d first expect. This is not an overly romantic children’s story, and it is also not a High Fantasy film either, as the cover may make you believe. "Princess Mononoke" is an extremely intelligent and sophisticated animated feature film that is a beautiful metaphor for the environmental disasters caused by the industrialization and its successive greed. Presented in hauntingly beautiful pictures and a fascinating story, director Hayao Miyazaki and his team of artists have created a film that makes you ponder and touches you deeper than any other animated feature – at least than any I have seen.

In the Japanese countryside, a beast is attacking a peaceful village. Ferocious and oozing evil, the demon beast kills everything in its path and only a heroic attack by Ashitaka, the prince of the village, puts a stop to it, just before it can lay waste to the village. But the victory has a price. Ashitaka has been infected by the demon’s curse and the local wise woman tells him that he disease will spread and eventually kill him. Hatred is the source of the demon that possessed the monster, which turned out to be a giant boar, and it was seemingly caused by a small iron ball inside his flesh. The only way to heal his own curse is for Ashitaka to find the origin of the hatred and placate it before it consumes him.

So, Ashitaka sets out to find the source of the iron and after days of travelling he finally finds it. But it is nothing like he expected it to be. The evil is mankind itself. A city, ruled by Lady Eboshi, is making a living on forging iron and building rifles and guns, which in turn they use to kill the local wildlife to expand their own dominion. Lady Eboshi has also cleared large areas of forest, effectively destroying the wildlife habitat it represented. And the animals are in an uproar over her killing spree, fearing she may even kill the Forest Spirit itself, the superior being that reigns over life and death in the forests.

San, is a young girl, raised by wolves, who is also known as "Princess Mononoke," and she is determined to stop Lady Eboshi. She takes every opportunity to try to kill her and her people, not seeing that she is effectively driven by the same hatred and greed that makes humans her enemies. When Ashitaka begins to understand the implications that are the root of the problem, he becomes the target for both sides. Whom should he help? Lady Eboshi in her quest to dominate the world, or the animals and trees in the forest, to save their homes?

"Princess Mononoke" is a fable in its most classic sense, like Aesop’s Greek fables. It uses animals to a large degree to convey its messages, and it has a final morale that should leave the viewer thinking about what he just saw. Unlike standard fairy tales, classic fables try to bring across a message, a deeper meaning, and "Princess Mononoke" fabulously manages to do just that in a way that is thrilling and educating. The movie touches upon many social aspects, ranging from hate and greed to humanity and sympathy, all brought out by characters and their many traits. No one in the film is only good or only bad, as exemplified best by Lady Eboshi and her many facets, and of course the Forest Spirit itself, the bringer of life AND death – which incidentally is beautifully shown through its footsteps, where we see flora grow at first wherever its foot touches the ground, and then immediately wilt and die. To the observing viewer, the film is filled with such ample metaphors, which immediately invite to repeated viewing.

The beauty of the film also lies in the fact that the artists use their medium to create visual language that is unlike anything live-action films could possible portray – although with current CGI technologies, it may actually be possible to realize the film as a live-action feature. The visuals are sometimes realistic, impressionistic at others, and almost abstract at others yet. It is this use of the film as an artistic form that makes "Princess Mononoke" a visual feast full of beautiful imagery and a visual eloquence that sets it above your standard animation fare.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment is presenting "Princess Mononoke" in a beautiful <$PS,widescreen> presentation on this DVD. The disc restores the film’s original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio and is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> television sets. The result – mesmerizing! The print used for this transfer is free of any blemishes, speckles or other deficiencies, creating an absolutely clean and solid image. But it is ultimately the fantastic color palette that breathes life into the film, and this DVD does a marvelous job capturing and reproducing these colors to the point that they truly leap off the screen. Lush greens, vivid blues, powerful reds, and anything in-between is remarkable well delineated in this transfer, making it an experience to remember. The incredible level of detail found in the transfer and the entire lack of distracting edge-enhancement further enhances the magnificent image quality. The solid blacks finally dot the I, and give the transfer depth and balance, making it clear that this is a DVD that someone paid a lot of attention to. The presentation is also free of any compression artifacts, leaving the high definition fully intact and maintaining the sharply defined lines that make up much of the film’s animation style.

As I mentioned above, Buena Vista Home Entertainment took the DVD back to the drawing board at one point to add the original Japanese language track to the disc. As it is released now, "Princess Mononoke" contains English, French and Japanese <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> audio tracks. No matter which one you prefer and choose, either one is extremely well produced and clear. I was surprised at how well even the English dub of the film was done, and how well the voices matched the characters. Dialogues are very clean and understandable, and the music and sound effects are also well integrated. Surround usage of the audio track is somewhat limited, but he tracks make very good use of the front sound stage with a wide stereo field.

Interestingly, "Princess Mononoke" contains two different English subtitle tacks. The first one is the subtitle track for the English dubbed version of the film, which is, naturally, not literally translated and a bit more free flowing. Just like the Japanese audio track, the second subtitle track is for the purist fans, containing the literal translation of the Japanese audio. Is was very surprised – and pleased – by the extra effort Buena Vista Home Entertainment put into this end of the release to make sure to cover all ends.

Apart from the stellar presentation of the feature film itself, the DVD also contains a few supplements, such as the film’s theatrical US trailer and a 5-minute featurette, containing interviews with many of the voice talent who stood in for the American language version.

I was completely smitten with "Princess Mononoke," I have to admit. While the presentation is marvelous, it is the film itself that touched me and made me ponder. Intelligent, imaginative, sophisticated and magically beautiful, "Princess Mononoke" is a poetic film and an epic story that can easily be compared to live-action films in its scope and importance. It works on may levels, and children will walk away form the film, understanding that trampling on nature is not a good thing to do. Adults on the other hand will get a harsh reminder that nature, as granted as we may take it, is a very fragile and delicate bio-system that we destroy on a daily basis without second thoughts. But do we really have to? Watch the movie on this DVD and then answer that question for yourself.